Mpapa trees grow in the valleys and lower slopes of Gombe National Park in Tanzania. The trees are tall, up to 70 feet high, and typically possess one straight trunk. The fruiting season usually takes place between late March and the end of April. During a good year, mpapa is one of the most important chimpanzee foods.
Like many chimp foods, the mpapa crop size varies from year to year. When it is plentiful, mpapa fruit provides the Gombe chimps with a reliable source of food during the spring rainy season. One spectacular tree near my hut in Gombe’s Kasakela Valley fruits from late March to the end of April.
Mpapa is an incredibly useful tree for researchers because when it fruits, it is a great place to find chimps. Historically, mpapa was one of Fifi’s, Gremlin’s and Patti’s favorite trees.
The leaves of mpapa are palmate (hand-like) and the bark is rough and slightly grooved. It is easy to find the trees when they are fruiting because the chimps tend to break off entire branches in order to eat the fruit. They then drop the branches to the ground when they are finished feeding. The area below these trees is often covered with discarded branches.
The black berries of the mpapa tree are about half the size of a grape and grow in clumps of three to six berries. Mpapa fruit has a tar-like consistency and tastes a bit like stale pumpkin pie. It is not a favorite fruit of mine, but I do eat it when I find that the chimps have dropped a branch of ripe fruit.
Chimpanzees will spend hours in a mpapa tree moving meticulously from berry bunch to berry bunch in search of ripe fruit. The chimps chew a number of berries at once then ball the fruit into a ‘wadge’ in their bottom lips. Presumably, this helps them break down the fruit so that it is more easily digested.
Mpapa fruit is a favorite of young chimps because there is no tough husk, which makes it easy to access. The fruit is also spread throughout the tree so there is seldom heavy competition for a particular piece of fruit.
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